An earthquake turns everything upside down: the roof over your head – that very symbol of safety and security – suddenly becomes a source of danger; that which is designed to protect becomes itself a threat.
In August 2016, the first of a series of major earthquakes struck central Italy, with our monastery in Norcia at the heart of it. While badly damaged, Norcia escaped without casualty. But the nearby town of Amatrice was flattened (despite being further from the epicentre) and hundreds of lives were lost.
With the Basilica of St Benedict and much of our monastery badly damaged, half of us moved up to the former Capuchin monastery on the hillside, which we had been in the process of restoring. With the help of friends, a potato patch was turned into a living monastery: a greenhouse tent was converted into the chapel, while a larger marquee was erected to house a dormitory and living area.
In a weekend, monastic life was restored, with the monastic schedule and community life overcoming the lack of structures. Or nearly so: doing Lectio Divina in a tent the temperature of a fridge is challenging, to say the least, and by mid-October the outdoor showers were somewhat more than penitential.
Thanks to the generosity of benefactors and other monastic communities, we were able to move into our first solid structure, which in reality was little more than a couple of oversized garden sheds. When another earthquake rendered the remainder of the monastery in town uninhabitable and the rest of the community came to join us, a space that had been cosy was suddenly very cramped indeed.
And then the great earthquake of October 30 hit. Our new home shook alarmingly but remained standing. Rushing outside, we watched Norcia crumble in the valley below. The town is often buried in fog but that morning it was a growing cloud of dust and debris that hid it from view, with similar clouds rising across the valley.
Our priests hurried down intending to minister to the dying, but while they found chaos and terror, there were miraculously no casualties. From our hillside we watched and prayed as the dust cleared.
On that clear sunny day it looked like a postcard, and an outsider would have struggled to notice much wrong. But we knew better. We could see things that an hour before had been hidden by a roof, a building, the town wall. And we knew that the basilica bell tower was missing.
News gradually filtered up that only the façade of the basilica remained standing and that the monastery was irreparably damaged. It quickly became clear that the mountainside would be our new home. We have not abandoned the town but, by making virtue of necessity and living a more truly monastic life in the peace and quiet of our mountainside, we can be better custodians of the birthplace of St Benedict, and better able to serve the townspeople, pilgrims and tourists. We are still very much the monks of Norcia, but we must be monks first of all.
In less than a year we designed, gained permission for and built a simple wooden monastery. Although the entire building could fit into just one of the cloisters of Monte Cassino, we are delighted with it.
In six months, the small chapel has already seen two simple professions and one solemn profession. But it is often overflowing, and our dormitory too is already full, so we know this can only be the first step. We have no real guesthouse (just a small Portakabin), and most of our library remains in the crumbling buildings in town.
Although it is monks living the monastic life that make a building a monastery – and so ultimately any building can suffice – a true monastery should help that, not hinder it. It is there that, through the common life, we grow in faith and love.
It is the place of our salvation and perfection, at once the family home and the house of God. Our goal is not to build a great monastery but to live the monastic life, and we simply want to build the monastery that will help make that possible.
We are constantly aware that events in Norcia could easily have been so different. There are so many stories of near misses, even among us monks. If it hadn’t been a feast day, if the clocks hadn’t changed that night, if a rock had fallen this way not that, if we hadn’t sheltered in the doorway in time… We are also aware that it can and will happen again. So we will build with the safest engineering possible but always keeping before our eyes the fragility of material things and the impermanence of this passing world.
Whatever Providence has in store, we will continue to seek God, setting our face on the New Jerusalem so that, in the words of St Benedict, “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love”.
The Prior of Norcia will celebrate a Sung Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption, Warwick Street, London, at 6:30pm on February 2, the feast of the Purification of Our Lady (Candlemas). The Prior will also speak at the St Benedict Dinner, a fundraising event for the monks in London on February 3. If you would be interested in attending please email Jessica Dalton: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to the monks of Norcia at en.nursia.org/donations
This article first appeared in the January 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here